Your Beginner's Guide to Ethical Non-Monogamy

People...I blame Barbie for my personal incompatibility with monogamy. I always enjoyed playing with Barbie, mainly because she was a super hot blonde that I could undress as often as I wanted. But more than undressing her, I loved having her sleep around. She slept with Ken, she slept with other Barbies. I’m pretty sure she slept with some Lego dudes. At one point some asshole stole my Ken, so I pretended that Ken got turned into a horse, so Barbie dated the horse for a while, and then Ken-horse ran off with another prettier horse I got one Christmas. Through playing I realised that all the juicy drama was in the breakups, but all the fun sexy times were in having multiple relationships. So at the tender age of 7 I started thinking about my future relationships and how if my Ken ever wanted naked times with other Barbies, I’d be totally cool with that.

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Cut to 12 years later, when I was entering my first serious relationship and I broached the subject with my partner saying pretty much exactly that. I’ve been more or less non-monogamous for my entire adult life. For me it was a no-brainer, but for many people out there it’s a much more difficult concept to grasp. So today, I thought we could take a look at the different types of non-monogamy that are floating around.

You’ll often hear the phrase “ethical non-monogamy” or “consensual non-monogamy” to refer to these kinds of relationships. The reason I normally don’t bother with the “ethical” or “consensual” part is because if you’re not doing it ethically and consensually then it’s not non-monogamy, it’s cheating.


If your partner is under the impression that you’re both monogamous, but you’re seeing other people without telling them, then there’s no euphemism you can use to make you seem like a better person. And people in the non-monogamous community, we fucking hate you for doing that, because the fundamental cornerstone of our relationships are communication and consent. The following forms of relationship styles require everyone in the relationship to work together for them to succeed. So if you haven't, or aren't planning on talking to your partner about this then you're already failing. Communication is key!



What is Monogamish?

This is a word that was created by American sexologist Dan Savage. A monogamish couple is one that have acknowledged that monogamy isn’t something that will work for them, but they’re yet to find an exact structure that fits. There’s no infidelity, because there has been discussion around relationship parameters. In a monogamish relationship it’s unlikely that anyone is actively seeking additional sexual or romantic encounters, but simply that there is prior consent from their partner should an opportunity arise.


To put it another way; you’re in a committed relationship, you go out drinking with your mates and a super cute bartender starts flirting with you. You’re totally allowed to tap that. Like almost every relationship on earth, the exact structure of it changes based on the people involved. Some will implement a policy of “no sleepovers” while others will request a “heads up” before or after sexual encounters happen. Monogamish is casually considered to be a tentative toe in the water before embarking on a more structured relationship journey.


What are Unicorn Hunters?

First of all, what’s a unicorn? In non-monogamy circles a unicorn is "a single polyamorous woman willing to be sexually and romantically involved equally with both members of a couple in a closed relationship". The reason they’re referred to as a unicorn is because they’re exactly as rare as one. Unicorn hunters are couples that are looking for a unicorn to have a threesome/threesomes with.

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Unicorn hunters are considered pretty problematic within non-monogamy circles, and this is primarily because the act of unicorn hunting tends to de-humanise the woman being sought. Many couples will talk about the elusive third partner they’re looking for in terms that strip out the autonomy of this person. They’ll pre-emptively set rules for what she will and won’t be able to do, whether or not she’ll be able to date other people, and what kind of kinks and services she’ll be interested in. The handy flowchart below is thanks to the folks at Unicorns-r-us, and they have heaps of other great resources you can check out.

In reality, the likelihood of just finding someone that wants to shag you and your partner is pretty slim and you should be fucking grateful for anyone who happens along. But the act of fantasising about threesomes tends to run over into the creation of a “perfect unicorn” and those expectations often get placed upon unsuspecting women. There’s a reason that bisexual women tend to get really pissed off with couples looking for a third, and thankfully someone has documented those reasons here.

So if you’re in a relationship and you’re looking for someone you and your partner can sleep with, or date, just remember that they’re a person too and will come complete with all their own wants, needs, demands and expectations for the two of you. 


What are Swingers?

Swingers is a kind of problematic word for a lot of the people in the non-monogamy space. It has connotations of key parties, and gross, unattached men who don’t understand consent boundaries. However many younger people are now reclaiming the word and taking the opportunity to re-brand it.

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In the strictest definition a swinger is someone in an otherwise monogamous relationship who will, usually at specific events, switch partners for an evening. However it can also include group experiences where a couple might switch partners, but all four of them are playing in the same space and therefore might all play with each other. These days swinging doesn’t necessarily happen at special events or locations. Couples can use dating apps to look for other couples who are interested and organise their own dates.

It helps to think of Swingers as being like Line Dancers. You know how they do that “do si do” thing and hook arms and swing their partner off to another person and pick up another partner, but by the end of the dance everyone somehow all ends up right back where they started? Well it’s sorta like that. But naked.

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What is an Open Relationship?

An open relationship is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. There’s two people who are dating each other, but they’re free to go out and have sex with other people, and they’re open about it.

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The specifics of how this works will vary wildly from one relationship to another. Some people may have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, where any hookups outside the main relationship (a.k.a the primary relationship) aren’t discussed or disclosed.

Others will have a system of total transparency where they’ll talk about who they’re sleeping with, what their experience was like, etc. Obviously the rules and structure of any given open relationship are as varied as the people involved in them.

Ultimately though, open relationships are about acknowledging that it’s okay to be attracted to someone other than your partner, and that sleeping with someone else doesn’t mean you love your partner any less.

They’re also becoming a lot more common, to the point that even well known celebrities are open about their openness, like legendary duo Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer for a start. Also Larry King, just to give you the mental image you never wanted. Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith are open and, spectacularly so is the total BAMF Shirley MacLaine!

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What are Polyamorous Relationships?

If you know your dead languages at all (and I hope you do), you’ll quickly realise that Polyamory literally means many loves’. People in polyamorous relationships may have more than one person with whom they are in love.

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I know; it sounds crazy. Imagine caring about more than one person. Sounds impossible right? It’d be like having more than one parent that you loved. How absurd.

Or if your parents had another child, in addition to you, and they had to love it…at the same time, and the same amount, as they loved you. Fucking madness. I mean where would you even draw the line?! Just throwing away love as though it wasn't a finite resource. 

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In poly there are two schools of thought around “hierarchical” and “non-hierarchical” polyamory. In the interests of brevity it can be summed up as, people in hierarchical relationships have a “primary” partner who will always take priority over other partners. This is often a spouse, or someone they were dating for a period of time before opening their relationship.

In non-hierarchical relationships a person might have a “nesting” partner or “anchor” partner, which is someone with whom they share finances, or live with, etc but who they acknowledge is not any more or less important than any of their other relationships. 

Once again there is a huge variety of different ways to practice poly, but the more common ones are called solo, parallel and kitchen table.

OKAY, So What's solo, kitchen table, and parallel poly?

Solo poly is practiced by people who aren’t in an established relationship, or don’t have a “primary” partner. Imagine Hermione, who has, say, three partners (Harry, Ron and Neville), but she lives on her own and is financially independent from anyone else. Harry, Ron and Neville understand that she's seeing other people, and they're comfortable with that. Hermione is practicing solo poly. 

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Parallel poly means that the people you’re dating don’t meet each other; they know you’re seeing different people, but there’s no desire to communicate or establish relationships between them. Imagine that Aragorn has a primary partner (Legolas) that he lives with, and is also dating two other, additional people (Gimli and Eowyn). Legolas, Gimli and Eowyn will never meet each other. They know that they're not the only people Aragorn is dating, but they have no interest in meeting each other or developing a relationship with the others.  

By contrast, kitchen table poly means that if The Flash is dating Catwoman and Green Lantern, both of them know each other well enough that they can sit down at a kitchen table together and have a cup of coffee and a chat. Catwoman's primary partner, Batman, also comes past and hangs out because he is Flash's "metamour" (the partner of the someone he's dating). 

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Poly people cop a lot of shit from society at large, moreso than many other structures of non-monogamy. It seems that while the general public can roll their eyes or raise an eyebrow if people are fucking others, they draw some kind of moral line in the sand when it comes to feelings. This is despite the fact that most people’s lives are full of multiple, emotionally committed relationships.

Most people have families that consist of more than one other person that they love. Most people have more than one friend that they really care about. And yet none of this is considered strange. No one asks these people if their friend gets jealous of their other friend.

I’m betting no one’s ever asked you if you have to spend separate time with your brother and your sister so neither one feels jealous. No one asks because a) that would be incredibly rude and b) because it’s so glaringly obvious that that’s not an issue. For people who identify or practice polyamory they’re simply extending the same logic to their sexual and/or romantic relationships.

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What is Relationship Anarchy?

Relationship Anarchy (RA) is something of a new entrant to the non monogamy space. To oversimplify it, RA is basically the art of fucking off labels. Someone practicing RA might have several close friends with whom they also happen to have sex, and two people they don’t have sex with but have intense emotional connections, and someone they live with and have sex with, but aren’t in a romantic relationship with; and none of these relationships necessarily have a label.

RA is the practice of letting each relationship be what it’s going to be without the need to put pre-conceived social structures around it, and remaining open to changes and transitions within the relationship dynamic.

Rather than the need to define a relationship with someone as “friends with benefits” or “significant other” people practicing RA can simply let the relationship grow into whatever it can be over time. This means that you're not putting expectations or demands on other people. Rather than going on a date with the goal of looking for "the one" you just go out to meet a person and see what happens. They might end up being the love of your life, or they might end up being a great friend, or a casual acquaintance, or a top notch housemate, or whatever! But you're not asking anything from them, or them from you. You're letting things happen organically. 


This also means eschewing the idea of the “relationship escalator.” Have you ever seen a movie where two people are dating and someone says to their friend “I just don’t know when the right time is to say the L word” or “He asked me to move in, is that too soon?” These are examples of moving up the relationship escalator. It’s the idea that every sexual-romantic relationship has a natural incline it has to follow and the expectation that you can’t get off the escalator until you’ve reached the top (happily ever after), or you’ve failed your relationship.

First you date, then you fuck, then you meet each other’s friends and family, then you move in together, then you buy a house or a dog together, then marriage, then kids, etc. RA does away with that because it’s allowing each relationship to be its own thing, free from enforced social norms, which can allow people to participate in activities such as moving in together, or having children in a much more objective and mindful way.

What you need to know about Minimising Harm

It can be tempting, if you’re currently in a monogamous relationship and thinking of opening up, to simply jump on all the dating apps and desperately run around trying to have sex with all the people, or find a unicorn, or start swinging, or whatever. Please don’t.

Before you do literally anything, have conversations within your established relationship. And when I say conversations, I mean literally exhaust the possibilities of things you have to discuss about opening up your relationship. Talk about any rules or boundaries you may need, read books such as The Ethical Slut and More Than Two.

Because a lot of people who open their relationships do it for the wrong reasons, or they do it before they’re ready and as a result they don’t just end up hurting themselves and their partner but they end up hurting everyone they try to date along the way.

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It’s always important to minimise the harm that you do in the world, so remember that the people you’re talking about dating or sleeping with; they’re more than just sexy lamps and unicorns. They have their own lives, their own relationship goals, their own sexual desires and they don’t exist solely as the object of your fantasy.

So if you go into this without knowing where your head or your primary relationship is at, and you're 6 months into dating someone before you realise you need to re-asses things; that's 6 months of someone else's life that you've just wasted, or disrupted, or upended. By conscious of the impact you have on others when dating. 


Relationship Education

While sex education in most of the world is woefully inadequate, it still remains better than the information we’re given about relationships. The fact that the idea of someone dating more than one person is considered taboo, when no-one in the situation is getting hurt, is evidence of this.

Hopefully this has helped to highlight that there are so many more ways to have a relationship than simply two people, alone in a sexual-romantic bubble. There are so many socially enforced ideas about what a relationship should look like, and very few of us are ever given the tools or encouragement to challenge that idea and ask ourselves “If I threw away the rule book, what would I actually want? What would make me happy?”

Some of these relationship styles might be exactly what you’re looking for, or maybe monogamy is more your thing, or perhaps none of these are really clicking for you. The point is, none of them are inherently wrong or right, it’s up to you to decide what will make you happy. And as long as you’re thinking about it and giving it the attention it deserves, then you’re making the right choice for your own personal happiness.  


That is all.


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